There is nothing more worthless than Spring Football at the College Football Level. I understand the concept that it’s 15 practices for teams to work on refining old skills and developing new ones. But, I don’t understand Spring Football games. They are completely worthless. Most of the time they aren’t even games, but they are a prime example of the insatiable desire for football. 60,000 at Tennessee, 90,000 at Alabama and over 100,000 at Ohio State. Some teams take these “games” on the road like West Virginia which played it’s Spring Game at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs. College Football can draw eyeballs year round which got me to thinking, why not?
Now, don’t get this wrong, the so-called Power Five Conferences are never going to play competitive football in the spring. There’s no chance that Ohio State and Michigan are suddenly going to meet in late June, but there’s a market there and the so-called Group of Five Conferences have the opportunity to take advantage of it and move their seasons to the Spring. This is not a new idea so don’t give me credit for being on the cutting edge. The first I heard of it was a couple of years ago when now former SMU and Hawaii coach June Jones floated the idea that the American Conference, Sun Belt, Mountain West, Conference USA, and Mid-America move their seasons to the Spring, finishing in the early Summer. It makes a ton of sense from the eyeballs and attention perspective. Practice could start in March, the games the first Saturday after the completion of the NCAA Basketball Championship, finishing the final weekend in June. What post-season, and that needs to be worked out could actually be played or around July 4th. With NFL training camp opening in late July, a move to the spring means year round football on something other than SiriusXM Satellite Radio.
Can Spring Football really work? Absolutely, and had egos not been an obstacle about 30 years ago, it might have been played in the professional ranks since the early 1980s. Remember the USFL? The United States Football League was born in 1983 and lasted for three seasons playing its games in the spring. The USFL was actually the brain child of a New Orleans business man named David Dixon in 1965. It took almost 20 years to get off the ground and the USFL officially began business on May 11, 1982 with a meeting at the 21 Club in New York City. Chet Simmons – one of the founders of ESPN was the league’s first commissioner and the league signed a lucrative $9 million per year contract with ABC to televise its games. One Owner of a USFL Franchise, J. Walter Duncan said the league began when a bunch of guys got together had a few beers and decided to start playing spring football. The appetite for football was so great even then that the USFL attracted famous celebrity owners, and was the starting point for at least one Hall of Fame Coaching Career not to mention some of the greatest to ever play the game.
Burt Reynolds was a part owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL, whose head coach was none other than Steve Spurrier. The list of players that got their start in the USFL is unbelievable. Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, who threw 44 touchdown passes, and for 5,000 yards in 1984 for the Houston Gamblers, Reggie White, and Steve Young all played in the league, Young signing the then-richest contract in pro football history with the Los Angeles Express in the total amount of $40 million, all guaranteed. The league stars included three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners in Georgia’s Herschel Walker, Boston College’s Doug Flutie and Nebraska’s Mike Rozier. Former Washington Redskins coach George Allen came out of retirement to coach the league’s Chicago Blitz, and long before Jim Mora was whining “Playoffs, don’t talk to me about playoffs” in a press conference while coaching the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, Mora was the head coach of the Philadelphia later turned Baltimore Stars. One of his players was a diminutive linebacker named Sam Mills a/k/a “the Field Mouse” who stared in the USFL before becoming the heart and soul of the expansion Carolina Panthers of the NFL. At 5’9″, Mora still proclaims him as the best player he ever coached. The league also introduced the concept of the salary cap although owners were quite creative in getting around it, by signing their best players to “personal services contracts” in addition to their team contracts. Business is business I guess.
But, the USFL wasn’t without its problems. Attendance was spotty in some places including Washington, D.C. where the Washington Federals never quite caught on like the Washington Redskins, averaging just 13,850 per game. The San Diego franchise never got off the ground as the team couldn’t reach a deal to play its games at Jack Murphy Stadium, which the Padres were still using at that time. The League had to take over the L.A. franchise, and the Boston Franchise was nothing if not unsettled. The Breakers wanted to play their games at Harvard, but couldn’t reach a deal. They then tried to go to Sullivan Stadium where the Patriots played and that didn’t work out. So, the Breakers wound up playing their games at Nickerson Field at Boston University with a seating capacity of just 21,000. After one year, the team moved to New Orleans, and the very next year moved to Portland, Oregon. Then there’s a legendary story of San Antonio Gunslingers owner Clinton Mangus telling his players that their paychecks were all drawn on an obscure local bank some two hours away from San Antonio. Not sure that everyone was going to get paid, the Gunslingers players participated in a bit of “cannonball run” to get to the bank first to make sure they got paid.
The downfall of the USFL came in 1985 when New Jersey Generals Owner Donald Trump forced the issue of the league moving its games to the fall in hopes of forcing a merger with the NFL. Along with his franchise, the franchises in Arizona, Baltimore, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Memphis, Orlando and Tampa Bay committed to playing an 18-game schedule in the fall of 1986 in direct competition with the NFL. It never happened. The conventional thought is that the NFL tried to destroy the USFL but heavily leaning on its television partners to not do business with the league. The result was a lawsuit filed by the USFL against the NFL for anti-trust violations. The USFL won, but really lost. The league was awarded $1 in damages, which was trebled under the law to a total award of $3. There hasn’t been spring football since.
That brings us back to the now-golden opportunity the Group of Five leagues have to move their games to the Spring and carve out something unique. It won’t happen though because there’s no chance those leagues will get to schedule games against the Power Five and there goes those big paychecks. But, as history has shown us there’s a market for spring football and I don’t mean the kind currently played in Division 1 football. The USFL showed us that some great players and coach coaches could be developed from playing in the Spring. The Group of Five has a chance to do that same in college and because it makes sense to do so, don’t ever count on it happening.